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Exploring Africa and Australia

by Dane Kennedy

Pub Date: March 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-674-04847-8
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

An academic correction of the “triumphalist” notion of British exploration of Africa and Australia.

Kennedy (History and International Affairs/George Washington Univ.) sorts through a far more complicated and messy history of 19th-century British exploration than the record has assumed, taking into account much failure as well as a deep reliance on indigenous help. The author asserts that the first British explorers of Australia and Africa looked to the vast continents much as the seafaring explorers had regarded the sea before them, as great unknown oceans, blank spaces to be “measured, mapped, quantified, classified, catalogued, and compared.” Kennedy sees in this epistemological process a form of “erasure” in order to impose upon the unknown continents a “maritime model” such as was employed by Capt. James Cook. Verification required eyewitness accounts scrupulously backed up by scientific method, such as demonstrated in James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790) and Alexander von Humboldt’s inspiring field research work through Spanish America. A network of organizations (and accompanying armchair geographers) emerged to sponsor and criticize the scientific enterprise, such as the African Association founded by Joseph Banks. Besides accounts by well-known explorers like David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and John Hanning Speke, Kennedy also looks at travels to Africa by women—e.g., May French Sheldon and Mary Kingsley—and sifts through the explorers’ methodology, shifting logistics depending on circumstances and setbacks, and reliance on indigenous guides. Moreover, Kennedy teases out a fascinating comparative study of Australian versus African exploration that takes into account the early British settlers’ colonies in the former and the richly entrenched indigenous societies and forbidding disease environment in the latter.

A wealth of research for the armchair traveler and historian.